Few book premises have the potential to set imaginations racing like the idea of a carnival, even if that idea is popping up in more and more guises recently. Jaime Questell’s By a Charm and a Curse is a novel with one such premise, this time in the form of a romantic YA fantasy featuring a curse, a crush and an ice cold kiss that has Emmaline King irretrievably enfolded into the mysteries of the circus and the secrets it keeps.
Emma’s fate is sealed the moment she steps onto the ground of Le Grand’s Carnival Fantastic and her head is turned by a mysterious teen boy. After a quick chat, some flirting and a kiss, Emma becomes cursed, forced into being the Girl in the Box and bear the burden that keeps the rest of the carnival living a charmed existence.
The one bright spot in Emma’s cursed life is the bubble of attraction she has for Ben, a carpenter who’s been working at the Carnival long enough to want to leave it forever. A kiss from Emma could ruin Ben, dooming him to her cursed existence while she gets to live her life as normal, but the closer Emma and Ben get, the more it looks like the charm keeping the Carnival together is wearing off and all those decades without injury, ageing or illness may just be about to catch up with them.
“I look past the top of Texas, up in the vague place where my hometown would be, where my dad and brothers and Juliet are. I look at my hands and the way they twitch. And I think about how I want to kiss Benjamin with lips that are mine, with a mouth that will mould into a new shape with his. A shape that’s only ours.”
From the off, there is no question about what sort of story you’re getting here, and it’s the kind of one you’ve probably read so many times it’s almost formulaic: girl meets boy, girl and boy kept apart by something beyond their control, girl and boy try to change that. With short, snappy chapters and both Ben and Emma’s perspectives driving the plot, Questell keeps the narrative moving at a breakneck pace, delivering an exciting read even if it’s not a novel that particularly keeps you on your toes.
It’s the kind of novel pacing that leaves characters suffering though, and while Emma and Ben’s individual voices stand up well, no one else appears to benefit from any other kind of nuance. Most of the characters’ relationships barely go beyond the surface definition – these two are friends, these two enemies – and it would have been nice to dig into the kinds of bonds that are formed if you’re bonded by carnival secrets and decades of life together without ageing. Nowhere is this more frustrating that in the portrayal of the Moretti brothers, a trio of vaguely sketched villains sporting a weak vendetta and who exist solely to drum up a bit of conflict that’s easily brushed past.
Having said that though, By a Charm and a Curse was the story I wanted The Night Circus to tell, albeit wrapped in a shiny YA package. There was magic, there was romance and there was a circus, and it all comes together in a neat piece of escapist fantasy that is a genuine joy to race through. If you’re after a charming romance with magical elements and engaging leads, By a Charm and a Curse is a pretty solid choice – as long as you’re also prepared for rushed plot points and a few gentle twists that you’re likely to see coming.
By a Charm and a Curse is published by Entangled: Teen on 13 March 2018